With such notable recordings to his credit as "In the Mood," "Shriners' Convention," as well as the perennial Yuletide classic "Santa Claus Is Watching You," Ray Stevens has become one of the biggest comedy recording stars of all time. The entertainer looks back at some of his biggest records -- as well as some classics from his fellow comedians in a brand new nine-CD set entitled Ray Stevens' Encyclopedia of Recorded Comedy Music.
Stevens, in an exclusive interview with Billboard, said that his motivation for releasing the comprehensive set was to shine the spotlight on a genre that he feels has never gotten its due at radio.
"That was the intent -- to put together a package that would include about every big comedy song that has ever been recorded. We had a lot of fun doing it. I've been working on it for two years. It's a labor of love, and we finally got it finished. One of the reasons I wanted to do this is that down through the years, I've made a lot of comedy records, but when you try to get them played, sometimes the mood is not quite there among the programmers to play a new comedy record on the radio."
"Their excuse is that comedy music is a fast burn, here today and gone tomorrow. I wanted to try to disprove that if I could by pointing out that these songs are never to be forgotten. People will remember a good comedy song a lot longer than they would some of the so-called straight love songs."
In addition to being an artist, Stevens also considers himself to be a fan of the tracks included that he didn't popularize, such as "The Purple People Eater" and "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its' Flavor."
"I've always wanted to record all of these songs," he said. "I'm a big fan of comedy music. Of course, you can't come up with all of them. This gave me the excuse to go back and get some of the songs I wish I had recorded."
The package does contain many of his biggest records, such as "In The Mood" and "The Mississippi Squirrel Revival," as well as a cut from his 1985 "I Have Returned" disc that still gets a lot of requests, "The Haircut Song." Of the song, Stevens says "That was a song that people can identify with. It's one that deals with a problem that all men have to deal with - getting haircut, and if you're on the road a lot, you'll get a barber that just doesn't have a clue to how to cut hair. But, it makes a good song," he says with a laugh.
While many fans are familiar with his work as a recording artist, you might not know that Stevens was one of the most sought-after studio musicians in Nashville during the mid to late 1960s. "I had no idea that I could sustain a career as an artist," he admitted. "But, I loved music, and wanted to be in the music business. So, I cultivated any avenue I could to do that. I did recording sessions as a musician as well as a background vocalist, and enjoyed every minute of it. I remember singing harmony with Waylon Jennings on a few songs that were hits. Chet Atkins always put me up so high that I strained to hit every note. It was a lot of fun."
He also served as a producer for several in town, including overseeing some of the early work of a young female vocalist named Dolly Parton. "She was just bubbling over with talent, and so pretty. I went in the studio with her, and we worked hard and did what I think were really good records. I think we were ahead of our time. It was more pop-oriented than the times called for. Later on, she broke into the business with some songs that were a little more country."
What is it about comedy music that has always struck a chord with the performer? "To me, I just think that comedy songs are clever," he said, "a notch above the normal songs in that they conjure up images that are thought provoking, as well as plain funny."
Stevens continues to record new projects, as well as entertain his fans on the road, and he wouldn't have it any other way, as retirement is not in his vocabulary. "Sitting at the beach all day is a lot of fun -- for about fifteen minutes. I love doing what I do, and I don't want to get to far from it," he says proudly.